In memory of The Father of the Spaghetti Western, Sergio Leone, 3rd January 1929 – 30th April 1989.

Sergio Leone‘s epic masterpiece “Once Upon a Time in the West“, following up his Dollars Trilogy finale “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly“, is a rarity that improves like a fine wine,  revealing more depths as the years pass.

This may have been Leone’s unplanned swan song love letter to the western genre, but it was also to begin his second trilogy that would comprise of “A Fistful of Dynamite“, and “Once upon a time in America“. His own unique take on the history of North America, which also can be argued The Dollars Trilogy is a part of too.

C’era una volta il West” (“Once Upon a Time there was the West”), the original Italian title, is more in keeping with the elegiac tone and encapsulates Leone’s vision perfectly. That of the dying out of the west and the western genre. The metaphor of the building of the east coast to west coast railway and the original title in the closing shot adds extra impact to this.

Leone’s aim was to deconstruct the Hollywood westerns tropes and clichés of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and many more he loved, and ironically re-envisage them to fashion darker connotations. Depicted no better than in the casting of Henry Fonda as the chief villain. Far more nuanced examples are throughout, with one of the first champions of the artistic merits of Spaghetti westerns film critic Christopher Frayling citing as many as 30 classic American westerns referenced.

Much as been said and discussed about its themes over the years, but what stands out now is that Jill played by Claudia Cardinale is by far a stronger, more complex female character than many depicted in the western genre up to that point. She is her own person and does not let herself be defined by who others think she is. She finds her place in the changing world in a quite unexpected way, unlike the male characters. Jill is the focal point of the story that connects the main characters; the heart, soul, and driving force of the narrative. The reason Cardinale is credited above her male co-stars of Fonda, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson – finally in a Leone film after first being approached for “A Fistful of Dollars” and turning it down because he did not like the script, not realising Leone would craft far more than on the page.

Finally what is not to love about The Maestro Ennio Morricone‘s sublime score, almost a character in itself. Emulating yet subverting classic western movie scores, in keeping with the film as a whole. For me he is simply the best composer of all time because his works were very rarely derivative and each is truly unique, elevating every movie. This is highlighted beautifully with the opening to “Once Upon a Time in the West” . An avant garde composition like no other, as only he could realise, and that many may not regard as music. Made up of hyper-realistic sounds, mind-blowing in its simplicity and awe-inspiring audacity. Quite simply Leone’s films would not be the works of art they are without Morricone’s music.

From the sublime, surreal opening to the last poignant shots Leone utilised each and every skill he had honed up to this point to create the definitive romanticised, hyper-realistic western epitaph.

The final words I will leave to Leone himself, beautifully summing up his intentions better than I ever could:

The rhythm of the film was intended to create the sensation of the last gasps that a person takes just before dying. Once upon a time in the West was, from start to finish, a dance of death. All of the characters in the film, except Claudia [Cardinale], are conscious of the fact they will not arrive at the end alive.”

Karl Franks